AFI FEST Interview: HALA Writer/Director Minhal Baig – American Film Institute

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AFI FEST Interview: HALA Writer/Director Minhal Baig

HALA plays as part of the New Auteurs section at AFI FEST at the TCL Chinese Theatres on Monday, November 18 and Wednesday, November 20. Buy tickets to the screening here.

Writer/director Minhal Baig has steadily proven herself a force within the independent film world with her first feature, ONE NIGHT, and now HALA, which landed on The Black List in 2016 and premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year.

Adapted from her short film, HALA follows a Muslim teenager (Geraldine Viswanathan) who struggles to reconcile her personal desires with family expectations as the daughter of conservative immigrant parents, Zahid (Azad Khan) and Eram (Purbi Joshi). In this thoughtful coming-of-age film, Hala bonds with a boy named Jesse (Jack Kilmer) in her class and discovers a secret about her father, all while grappling with questions of faith, sexuality and familial obligation.

We spoke with Baig about the adaptation process, working with Jada Pinkett Smith on HALA and her advice for other women in color looking to break into the industry.

AFI: You initially studied painting and playwriting in college at Yale University. What drew you to filmmaking?

MB: For a long time, I saw these paths as parallel. Then there was this moment where I recognized film as being much more accepting and culturally relevant. There’s something about movies that can transcend cultures and have a farther reach. I think it’s difficult for the fine art world to have the same kind of impact.

The stories I was writing were always very emotional and personal to me. It wasn’t until I graduated from college that I felt like I could marry these two ideas of visual storytelling and writing and do it in a medium that didn’t require viewers to have a preexisting knowledge of film. I liked knowing that anyone can watch a movie and appreciate it, even if they don’t have a film studies degree or know a lot about movies.

AFI: What challenges did you face in adapting your short film into a feature? Was that the plan all along?

MB: The plan was always to make a feature. I had written a feature-length screenplay before I wrote the short. The short was a means of producing a proof of concept to convince financiers to fund the feature. The short film focused on the relationship Hala has with Jesse. It’s a very small, self-contained story, and it’s only one aspect of the feature-length film.

One of the things that I realized when people watched the short was that viewers were really drawn to what was going on within the family, and with her relationship with her parents. What was originally the background in the short became the foreground in the feature. I ended up focusing on the relationship that Hala has with her mom and that became the central relationship.

AFI: Talk about how you discovered Geraldine to play Hala. What preparation did you have her take to play the role of a Pakistani American Muslim?

MB: Geraldine submitted a tape for us to review, and it was very evident that there was a real charisma and levity that she brought to the character, which wasn’t originally written in the script, but was a new dimension that I wanted to embrace.

Geraldine has a very different life than Hala, but she was really drawn to this story and to the part because it was quite different from her own, and she knew that it would be a challenge. It was a very different part than she’s ever played before. But she still really related to the universal story of a young woman who is struggling to make her way in the world.

To prepare for the role, we had a week of rehearsals with her, Purbi who plays her mother Eram and Azah who plays her father Zahid. We all rehearsed the scenes together in English and then we rehearsed the scenes in Urdu. Geraldine doesn’t speak the language, but, in those rehearsals, she was able to understand the flow of the scenes and what was happening in the arc. She was very much reacting in the moment on set to what they were saying even though she doesn’t speak or understand the language.

Hala is a very difficult part to play where so much of it is unspoken and restrained. One of the things we learned in the process of building this character was that we had to have someone who projected emotional depth without a lot of words. We had to follow her through these moments, which can be quite difficult to watch. Geraldine embraced these moments as a way of trying to find a way to manifest Hala’s internal struggle, and she did it so gracefully with nuance and complexity.

Writer/director Minhal Baig

AFI: Can you discuss your creative choices with the evolution of Hala’s parents, particularly the mother’s arc?

MB: That was very much built into the feature-length script. I wanted the audience to view Eram the way that Hala sees her since we’re seeing everything through her perspective and, as the movie goes along, we’re widening that perspective a bit. There are many times where we’re marginalizing her in the way that Hala has marginalized her. And then we’re forced to confront that Eram is quite complicated and going through her own coming of age and her own search for independence.

There is an entire movie that could have been told from Eram’s perspective. What I hoped to do through this character was to shine a light on the mother-daughter relationship that can be quite fraught and, over the course of the movie, reverse the roles. You see Eram differently at the end of the film because she shows up. She deeply cares for Hala. And then you watch the scenes where she’s being a helicopter parent, and you have another perspective as to why she is the way that she is and treats Hala the way that she does. Purbi played those scenes beautifully where viewers see the effort she’s making to try to reach out to her daughter, which goes unreciprocated.

By the end of the film, the hope is that they make one step closer to each other. It’s an effort that’s required from both of them to understand one another better and to realize that they have more in common than they think.

AFI: Jada Pinkett-Smith is an executive producer on HALA. How did she come on board the project?

MB: Jada had watched the short film, and it really resonated with her. She felt like there was a relatable and universal story in this movie and that, even though she didn’t grow up Muslim or Pakistani-American, she felt represented. I met with her and pitched her the feature-length film, and she decided to put her resources behind a filmmaker who would otherwise not get their film made and was very supportive throughout the entire process. She trusted my vision for the film and acknowledged that even though she’s an executive producer and was going to give her input, that ultimately the film was mine and the ultimate creative decisions would lie with me.

It was great to have Jada on the movie because she backed me and supported me all the way through as an artist. It’s different to talk to someone who’s been in the business for a long time, and she knows what it’s like to make something that’s deeply personal and to protect it.

AFI: What do you hope that audiences at AFI FEST take away from seeing the film?

MB: There’s a lot of reasons that I think I made this movie, but the biggest reason was I wanted the 18-year-old version of me to feel less alone. If the film resonates with people and they can extend some compassion for someone like Hala — even if they themselves are not like Hala, than I think the film is successful. The intention was to create something which I felt like I didn’t have when I was growing up.

There are definitely Muslim stories out there, but I wanted to make something that would include young women. It was like a secret letter that I was writing to them, and the message was that you are not alone and that you deserve to be respected, loved and heard. You’re not an imposter in your faith or your culture or your family. You’re a human being and you’re imperfect.

AFI: What filmmakers are you taking inspiration from these days?

MB: I’m a big fan of Andrea Arnold, Lynne Ramsay, Haifaa al-Mansour, Céline Sciamma [whose film PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE  is playing this year’s AFI FEST] and Asghar Farhadi.

AFI: What advice do you have for other women of color who are looking to write and direct in Hollywood?

MB: There’s several things. The first one is: There is no cavalry. You have to make your own. Be relentless. Accept that rejection is part of the process. The other part is to choose construction over destruction. It’s very easy to be critical of the art that exists right now, and it’s very difficult to create something of value and emotional resonance. I choose construction every time.

Buy tickets to HALA at AFI FEST here.

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